Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador.
U.S. Policy and El Salvador.
"Why are we there?' asks Raymond Bonner, at the end of his excellent study of U.S. policy and El Salvador. "Can we accomplish what we profess to want, and above all, is our conduct morally justifiable in terms of the values the United States was founded to represent?'
If our political system is half so rational, responsive--and exportable--as most Americans imagine, Bonner's questions should frame a major debate this Presidential election year about Ronald Reagan's attempt to Americanize the blood-spattered politics of El Salvador. Yet again and again in Weakness and Deceit, Bonner, who reported from Central America for The New York Times and other publications, demonstrates why Presidential politics in the United States and El Salvador are unlikely to end either the Salvadoran catastrophe or U.S. complicity in it.
Of all the American weaknesses he analyzes, perhaps the most appalling is the incapacity, so amiably personified by President Reagan, to transcend the simplistic mind-set that has led the United States to make itself the ally of repression and the arsenal of terror in so many Third World nations. "I get a lot of mail asking me to examine my conscience and every so often I do examine it,' Deane Hinton told Bonner one evening near the end of his two years as Ambassador.
"And what do you find?' Bonner asked.
"The alternative would be worse.'
As far as the legions of diplomats, military men, C.I.A. agents and other administrators of the Reagan policy who populate Bonner's book are concerned, the only alternative to a U.S.-sponsored reign of terror seems to be not merely a guerrilla victory but the establishment of a Soviet beachhead in El Salvador, threatening "the whole of Central and possibly later South America, and I'm sure, eventually, North America,' as President Reagan put it in 1981.
Few American journalists have studied the Salvadoran opposition, political and military, as thoroughly as Bonner. His analysis of the guerrillas and their civilian allies is especially valuable in light of the Administration's insistence that they are the agents of a Nicaraguan-Cuban-Soviet conspiracy. In historical fact as opposed to American fantasy, Bonner points out, the major Salvadoran guerrilla groups all have anti-Soviet origins and still harbor suspicions of the Soviet Union. They "have also held divergent views about Cuba and Nicaragua,' he adds, with many Salvadoran insurgent leaders expressing "disapproval' of the policies of Castro and the Sandinistas.
Reality also rebuts the illusion that the Salvadoran guerrillas are some monolithic, externally controlled menace committed to imposing a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship on the country, as U.S. officials continue to insist. Instead, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, named for a Salvadoran leftist leader who was killed by the military after a similar uprising in 1932, is a coalition of diverse and often antagonistic military factions. Ideologically they range from Marxists to Christian Democrats, but they all have one thing in common: they have been steadily forced into the role of armed military--rather than peaceful political --opposition by years of violent repression.
Despite that, four years of slaughter seem not to have radicalized the guerrillas beyond the point of no return. While the U.S.-backed forces (even after their "human rights training' by American advisers) continue to commit gruesome atrocities, Bonner points out, it is "guerrilla policy to treat prisoners well,' if only because it encourages military defections. Guerrilla leaders committed to a negotiated settlement have steadily gained the upper hand while U.S. officials repeat the claim that dedicated Marxist-Leninists have seized control of the insurgents. Of all the deceits in U.S. policy that Bonner illuminates, this is surely the most revealing: for more than four years El Salvador has been racked by war not because the country is threatened by a "communist takeover' but because the United States and the Salvadoran military are opposed to the kind of compromise peace settlement favored by the guerrillas and by democratic U.S. allies like Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia.
Bonner, it should be emphasized, is no apologist for the Salvadoran opposition. As his book makes clear, the politics of blood is not limited to those Salvadorans the United States has chosen to support. In April 1983 in Managua, Nicaragua, two Salvadoran guerrilla leaders--Salvador Cayetano Carpio and Melida Anaya Montes-- died under mysterious but revealing circumstances. Montes, better known as Commandante Ana Maria, was murdered by members of a rival leftist faction. Less than a week later Carpio, who was widely suspected of ordering Montes's death, was also dead.
The official explanation was suicide. But as Bonner points out, "Hardened revolutionaries don't commit suicide.' Both deaths were "linked to a bitter schism' inside one of the guerrilla groups. Far from being explicable in terms of some Soviet or Cuban master plan, the opposition, as Bonner puts it, "is a political Rubik's cube.'
Interestingly enough, the two dead leaders were rival members of an insurgent group that did have close relations with Cuba. But Joaquin Villalobos, whom Bonner describes as "the dominant guerrilla leader' and "the best military commander on either side of the war,' comes from quite a different background. Of middle-class origin, Villalobos heads the People's Revolutionary Army which was organized by "frustrated Christian Democrats' and student Maoists. Ideologically, Villalobos's group has been critical both of the Soviet Union and of alignment with Cuba. Like other guerrilla leaders, Villalobos has personally offered to negotiate with the Americans, and has also opposed terrorist tactics such as attacks on U.S. personnel and the execution of captured Salvadoran soldiers. Yet Villalobos hardly seems a mere misguided liberal. In yet another internal power struggle, he ordered the execution of Roque Dalton Garcia, one of El Salvador's most famous poets.
While Bonner has no illusions about El Salvador's revolutionaries, he recognizes what any objective observer of events there must: the most wanton killers in El Salvador clearly are not on the "communist' side but among the "anticommunists' the Reagan Administration has so eagerly befriended. Nor does portraying the guerrillas as agents of Soviet aggression serve either the United States or El Salvador well. Bonner writes:
Among the leaders of the Salvador revolution are Marxists and hard-line Leninists. . . . But within the opposition there are also many democrats. The challenge for U.S. policy is to work with and bolster the latter. The United States has worked hard to bring the Salvadoran right . . . into the political process. Surely the United States can reach out with the same effort to the left. A leftist government does not necessarily have to be anti-American and pro-Soviet. It probably would not be.
If the guerrillas bear little resemblance to the official U.S. stereotype, our officials, as Bonner portrays them, have even less in common with the stereotype of Americans as the champions of decency and democracy. In damning detail, he describes how U.S. officials have condoned the worst crimes of their Salvadoran proteges while misrepresenting the facts of the situation to the press, to Congress and to the American people.
Although one of the ostensible purposes of U.S. intervention is to foster respect for human rights among members of the Salvadoran regime, Bonner's account reveals that quite a different metamorphosis has occurred. U.S. officials embroiled in Central American matters have become as intolerant of criticism as any Salvadoran colonel or oligarch. They reserve special wrath for U.S. journalists who challenge official American dogma.
"I'd like to get [John] Dinges [another reporter whose coverage of El Salvador has been excellent] and Bonner up in a plane,' senior U.S. military adviser Col. John Waghelstein once remarked, in an apparent reference to the old Indochina custom of throwing "subversives' out of military aircraft. Fittingly, Colonel Waghelstein made his comment at a Fourth of July party in San Salvador. U.S. intervention has not brought American-style freedom to El Salvador, but it clearly has subverted the commitment of at least some important American officials to the rights we are supposedly defending there.
The title of Bonner's chapter on the U.S.-supported (and -manipulated) electoral process in El Salvador, "Elections Si, Democracy No,' places Washington's euphoria about the presidency of Jose Napoleon Duarte in proper perspective. But his most chilling, and valuable, contribution is the detail in which he portrays American officials' refusal to face the facts concerning the country they imagine they can save. Over and over, U.S. officials--notably, the intelligence agencies--demonstrate not merely an astonishing ignorance of the realities of El Salvador but an even more remarkable determination to avoid the contagion of fact.
With the publication of this book, there can no longer be any excuse for such ignorance, if there ever was. Weakness and Deceit should be required reading not only for every American voter but also for those in the State Department,
the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and, above all, the White House.